One day when I was very young, my father brought home a rental copy of the Karate Kid. He was a fan of movies but not going to the theater, and as part of our weekly ritual, a rental would go into the VCR for roughly 90 minutes of family time. On that night, he brought home a tale of a loser who finds confidence through learning martial skills. That was the start of my martial arts journey so many years ago. After that, my father would rent for me nearly any martial arts movies that came into the video store; from American Ninja to Chuck Norris’s Octagon, he sat with me through a few good, some okay, and many terrible martial arts movies. He took me to my first martial arts class, my first and only martial arts competition, and my first seminar.
While this began my on again/off again love of the martial arts, my father was never interested or even a little curious about the martial arts. He did all of that because he cared for me. He wanted the best for his children. For most of my life, that was the definition of my father. As I aged and became less self-involved, I saw more of the man he was. He was an accountant, an avid Republican, a die-hard University of Illinois fan, a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and he loved to remodel houses in his spare time. As I got older, our conversations turned to books, to TV shows, and, always, to politics. My father – as frustrated as he would sound – could never talk enough about politics. Eventually, I learned that it came from his competitive side, and his need for fairness. For some reason, he had a deep need and belief in fairness despite all evidence that the concept didn’t exist. He did his best to live this philosophy, though, by how he treated my sister and me. In that he succeeded. From beginning to end, he treated us fairly.
My father loved sports, and when we were young, he encouraged us to play as many as we could sign up for. I ran cross country and track, played baseball. But my love was basketball, which he played as a young man. My sister, however, discovered volleyball. In our family, she’s the athlete, which was like him. In dad’s family, he was the athlete. She had the right mix of talent and work ethic to become good at it. He only missed her games if he was at one of mine. While she did other sports, eventually, volleyball took priority. In high school, my sister played volleyball pretty much year round. I don’t think there was a bigger champion of my sister than him. I’d call from college, and he’d tell me about Mindie’s games, her progress on the team, and finally her offer to play volleyball at a college in Louisiana. The pride in his voice couldn’t be missed.
When my father was first diagnosed with cancer back in March of 2015, I was numb, shocked. It was so unexpected. (As if anyone expects cancer.) Feeling helpless, I realized my only contribution to his treatment could be as a cheerleader for him, to keep his spirits up and to motivate him to keep fighting. Because that’s what he was in for, the literal fight of, and for, his life. Ultimately, it was a battle he couldn’t win, and on May 11th, it ended.
Over the years in both my day job and in the martial arts, a stream of motivational material has passed before me. I thought of all the slogans, sayings, memes, and quotes that I’ve seen about never quitting. But cancer is a different fight. It’s physically, mentally, and spiritually more difficult than any other endeavor I’ve ever witnessed. The war on cancer is not one that is fought by you but one that is fought upon you. Your body is at once the battleground and the enemy. Doctors wage the fight with chemical weapons or by removing pieces of you. The physical stress is incredible, and during the exhaustion of ‘healing,’ you are face to face with your own mortality. As the medicines and surgeries do their job, you contemplate not being. Watching my father face, rage against, and finally accept his mortality was difficult. It broke my heart. More than once. I sat watching this man who all his life had supported me, had championed me, had been proud of me, and I was unable to do anything to help him when he needed it. He would tell me that just sitting with him was enough, but it never felt like enough.
In February of this year, he quit chemotherapy. While a difficult decision, it was the correct one. It would be easy to view that decision as quitting the fight, as tapping out to cancer. But that’s the wrong view. His struggle changed from a battle against cancer to one of quality of life versus quantity. With the cancer continuing to grow, the choice was between a few more weeks of life that would likely be spent in the hospital and definitely spent in pain versus embracing the finality in order to go home. My father chose home to be with family and friends. He even got to travel down to Shreveport, LA where my sister and her lovely family live. By choosing quality of life, he spent three weeks with his grandkids. By choosing quality of life, he spent my birthday with me. Actually that birthday was the first one in nearly two decades that I had spent with both my father and sister together. I’m sure mom was there with us in spirit. I cannot imagine what he went through to find peace with his ending, but I know he found it. While scared of death, he had accepted it before he went.
In order to cope, my personality looks for lessons. I’m constantly asking what can I learn from this. Death provides so many cliché lessons. Don’t take anything or anyone for granted. Follow your dreams today because tomorrow may not be here. And other such platitudes that help ease the hurt of missing someone. Except that they really don’t help. There are no lessons. It’s just sadness. From that moment on, the world required his family to adapt to an absence. It’s not a complete absence, though. I find constant reminders of him everywhere: the roll top desk in my home office, any discussion where ‘the democrats’ gets said, a Cardinals baseball game, etc. As I learn to live with this absence, I’m sure I’ll find lessons and meaning in my father’s final days. Like I said, it’s my coping mechanism. But for now, I just miss my father.
As I return to my daily routine, little things remind me of his effect on my life. When I pick up a stick or put on a gi, I give him a little thanks for starting me down this path of martial arts. Dad didn’t know how deeply martial arts have impacted my life, and honestly, he didn’t care. All that mattered to him was that martial arts made me happy and kept me healthy. He’d listen intently to whatever I’d say about training or testing, and regardless of whether he understood it or not, he enjoyed discussing the arts with me.
There are many things I could tell you about my father. He taught me many of my good qualities. It’s through him that I learned hard work paid off. But what defined him is that he cared for his family. In the weeks leading up to his death, he was confined to a hospital bed. During my visits, we had some great conversations. The ones that stuck out most were about his family. I remember that he lay there in pain telling me he was worried about one of his sisters. Or that he felt bad he couldn’t be out at the farm helping remodel his parents’ house. The last thing he said to me was to be safe driving. He said, “Text me when you get home. Please, be safe. I worry about you driving all that way at night.” Then he said he loved me. That’s how I remember my father. A man on his death bed worrying more about others than himself.